|Patrick Fenton was born in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn on St Patrick’s Day. His father was born on “the Long Walk” in Galway, Ireland, the son of a fisherwoman, his mother was born in Willimastown. After eight gritty years as a cargo loader at New York’s Kennedy Airport, Fenton quit to take a civil service job as a Court Officer in Manhattan’s courts, and to continue a freelance writing career as a journalist that has brought him publication in magazines and books, including the New York Times, New York Newsday, The Daily News, and New York Magazine. He has worked as a New York City taxi cab driver, bartender, and radio host. He is the author of “Confessions of a Working-Stiff,” an account of a cargo handlers life, which was published in 1973 in New York Magazine. His play “Jack’s Last Call, Say Goodbye to Kerouac,” has recently been released on CD as a radio drama. It has been heard on over 70 public radio stations across the country, and has been nominated for an Audie Award by the Audio Publishers Association. In addition, after two successful runs in Jack Kerouac’s hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, the play appeared at the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, and was picked as one of the best New England plays of 2008. He has recently finished writing another play based on a collection of short stories about the working-class Irish American neighborhood he grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, titled, “Stoopdreamer and Other Brooklyn Stories.” The Cell Theatre in the Chelsea section of New York will be putting it up this winter. The Irish actor, Ciaran Byrne will be playing Billy Coffey. Fenton’s writing has been published in numerous writing anthologies including, “The Irish, a Treasury of Art and Literature,” and the “Book of Irish Americans.” He is also a frequent contributor to The Irish echo newspaper based in Manhattan.|
The Ghosts of Coney Island
By Pat Fenton
Bone chilling day on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. Billy Coffey parks his car on a side street next to the Cyclone roller coaster. He’s been reading these stories in the New York Times about how there is a new Coney Island coming, one that will replace the remnants of the old one he once knew. So he decides to make this trip down here. His head is spinning with all these old Brooklyn memories, and he’s come back here now looking for signs of them, looking for stray pieces left behind from the sad sweep of time.
In the stillness of winter Coney Island becomes a black and white world, a place filled with the ghosts of Brooklyn’s past. He’s looking for this bar up on the boardwalk called The Atlantis, been there since the 30’s. One hot, summer afternoon, when he was 21, Billy rented a car, a convertible, and drove his father there to buy him a beer.
In the 1940’s, Alan Dale, who became as famous as Frank Sinatra, started out there as a saloon singer with Eddy Small’s Orchestra. In the 50’s, Country and Western music was the draw, now he read somewhere that they use it for poetry slams on Saturday nights.
When he was a kid, few people from his Brooklyn neighborhood ever came to Coney Island in the winter, but his father who was born on “The Long Walk” in Galway,Ireland, the son of a fisherwoman, often took the nine mile, elevated train ride there.
He missed looking out at the sea that was once at his door.With a young Billy standing next to him at the counter of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, enclosed now for the winter, he would slurp down a dozen raw clams, and wash it down with a plastic cup of cold, Rheingold Beer. And outside, there would be nothing but silence all the way down Surf Avenue.
As he walked along the boardwalk the two of them once walked on in, he could imagine the old Coney Island he saw when summer came, the freak shows, the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel ride, the penny arcades, the mechanical gypsy woman inside a big glass booth who told your fortune for a nickel, the shooting galleries, the smells, salt water taffy, cotton candy, hot dogs, knishes sizzling on a grill, the huge, “Say Seagram’s and Be Sure,” billboard, Phil’s Pizza stand on the corner of the boardwalk next to the Cyclone roller coaster, and on, and on, and on.
Except for Nathan’s up on Surf Avenue, the little that was left was boarded up now, and at first he thought maybe the Atlantis Bar wouldn’t be open in the winter, but it was. He sat up at the front of it and ordered a beer from this rough looking Spanish guy. Aside from himself, there were only three people drinking in the bar.
One of them was a good-looking blond haired, woman who looked out of place here. She sat reading a paperback book. Billy glanced down at the title as he passed her coming in, “A Separate Piece”. Down further, toward the end of the bar, a fat man who had long hair that flowed over the pea coat he was wearing, was talking baseball with the bartender.
“These fucking Coney Island Cyclones, who needs them? What do they do for us? What do they do for the bar? You think the people who come down here to see them play baseball in that new stadium are going to hang around in Coney Island after the game ends? No fucking way.”
He looked to be in his fifties. The bartender just nodded as he spoke. Next to him was a middle-aged man wearing a mailman’s uniform, and a New York Mets cap. He stared straight ahead studying himself in the long mirror behind the bar, and every now and then his lips would move slightly as if he was talking to someone.
The bartender put the beer down which was served in a clear, plastic cup. Billy settled down for a while, and then he started to stare around the place. He tried to do it in a casual way, every now and then turning around and looking toward the back at the huge room. An empty space now.
He remembered it once had a big horseshoe, shaped bar right in the middle of it. Right over there. He remembered that crowded, summer afternoon when he and his father sat at it.
“Wasn’t this a Country and Western bar once?” Billy asked the bartender.
“Hey, what planet you been on, Amigo? How the fuck am I supposed to know what it was years ago? You come in here once, you’re already asking fucking questions. “
The fat man down the end of the bar puts his hand over his face and stifles a laugh.
“Used to be a lot of shit here years ago,” the bartender says. “ Ain’t shit here now.”
“No, I was just thinking about a time in the 50’s when I came here once and they had this guy singing country music,“ Billy said. “Maybe I got the wrong place.”
The bartender shrugs his shoulder.
“Yeah, maybe you fucking do.” Years ago, Billy would have been all over his ass.
The fat man laughs. But Billy knows that this was the place. The name of the guy who sang here comes back to him. He called himself “Westy Fesco, the singing cowboy.” He doesn’t know why he remembers this, but he does.
The blond haired woman at the other end of the bar looks up from her book and stares at him. He stares back. She looks to be about 50, not bad looking, he thinks. But hanging out here, she could be trouble. Better leave it there.
It was crowded that summer afternoon in the 50’s when he drank here with his father, women and men in wet bathing suits pressed into the crowd, and all along the long, bar rows and rows of plastic cups of tap beer.
He could picture the two of them sitting there, his dad is drinking a shot of Seagram’s rye whiskey, with a beer chaser, wearing his summer straw hat, the collar of his white shirt neatly, pressed over his suit jacket. And outside you could hear the hum of a biplane flying over the boardwalk with a “Drink Kruger Beer” banner tailing it. So far away from Galway now, “The Long Walk,” but he looked content.
Standing up on the bar is Westy Fesco singing a Hank William’s song, “Your Cheating Heart.” He ain’t bad, either, really leaning into the song. Him and his father sit there making small talk, nothing profound. They’re just both glad to be there together.
“Westy, could you play, ‘I’ll Never Be Lonely Again,’” a woman yells out. “Well darling,“ Westy says, “if you want to be lonely, just hang around with me.“ And Billy remembers her sad smile, and the line that Westy said back to her on that long ago summer afternoon in the Atlantis Bar in Coney Island as if it was yesterday. Strange how little scenes like that stay in your memory,” he thinks.
“Paul, we don’t have to worry about you coming in here some afternoon and shooting all of us with an automatic weapon, do we?” the fat man asks the mail man.
“You know, Carlos, you should buy Paul a house drink every now and then, keep him happy.”
“Yeah, why don’t you buy him a fucking drink?”
All the while, the mailman looks straight ahead into the mirror.
“Where’s the men’s room? “Billy asks the bartender.
“Second door on the right back there.”
He stops at what he thinks is the men’s room door and reaches up to slide back a long black bolt at the top of it. As he pulls his hand away from it, he feels something pushing hard on the other side of it. Something trying to get out. Then he sees the first head of about six, snarling black pit bulls, teeth snapping out at his leg.
There’s a commotion up front. It’s Carlos yelling, screaming, “hey, what the fuck you doing, man? Why you going near that door? Get the fuck out of there. Hey, hey, hey, you fucking listening to me? Man. Close it up.”
Billy pushes in hard on the bottom part of the door with his knee catching one of the pit bull’s heads in it. He snarls up at him as he bites into the side of the metal door, and then he finally retreats. He’s sweating now, his heart is pumping fast, as he slides the bolt back on the door.
“Man, what the fuck is wrong with you, eh? If those fucking dogs ever got out of there you know what they would do? They keep them in the dark for a reason.”
And then Billy realized that the pit bulls were trained to just wander around the darkness of the Atlantis Bar at night when it was all locked up.
He walked back to the bar and picked up his cup of beer, and he drank it down in one swallow. His hands still shook a little and he could see the fat man grinning. The blond haired woman was gone now. Then he walked back to the spot where the horseshoe bar once was. Where he drank with his Galway dad.
He could hear Westy Fesco introducing a song, “right now, I would like to play for you one of my favorite tunes. It’s another Hank William’s song from old Luke the drifter called, “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight.”
Billy Coffey signaled the bartender, a pleasant looking man wearing a black bow tie and a starched white apron, to buy the blond haired woman down at the end of the horseshoe bar a drink on him. It was the same woman he remembered who had requested the song, “I’ll never be lonely again.” It was the same woman he saw reading the book earlier. She looked up and smiled at him as he walked towards her.
Behind him he could hear what sounded first like fire works going off, and then he heard the fat man screaming, and then Carlos, and he realized that it was a gun, an automatic weapon.
As he slid onto a stool next to her, the sound of country music echoed through the bar and drifted out onto the empty, winter boardwalk that he used to walk with his father.